how to get people to leave you alone so you can focus, without making everyone hate you

Ever feel like your day is a series of constant interruptions that prevent you from moving your biggest priorities forward? Or that you get a lot more done when fewer people are in your office?

To some extent, dealing with interruptions is part of most jobs. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t create some structures that minimize them or carve out time for yourself where you can focus without distraction.

Often people worry that doing this will make them seem inaccessible or unresponsive to colleagues. But it doesn’t have to. Here’s how.

1. Schedule clear work blocks. Just like you schedule time on your calendar for meetings or other important appointments, schedule time with yourself to tackle your biggest priorities. Then, protect them like you would anything else important; block off the time as “unavailable” on your calendar, let phone calls go to voicemail, and close your door if appropriate in your office culture. If someone stops by in the middle of the time, be willing to say, “I’m right in the middle of a work block for something pressing, so if this isn’t urgent, can we talk later?” The key to making this work is…

2. When you say “I can’t talk right now,” be clear about when you’ll come back to the person. It’s important to include something like “can we talk after lunch?” or “can I shoot you an email about that before the end of the day?” That way, you’re not just leaving the person hanging; you’re setting out clear follow-up steps with some assurance that their issue will get your attention – just not right this minute.

3. Be really responsive to people during other times that allow it. If you make a point of being responsive and helpful during periods when your work flow allows it, you’ll usually get more leeway during the times when you do need to turn down interruptions. Coworkers are less likely to see, for example, work blocks as “I can never get Jane when I need her” when they get reasonably fast responses from you during other times.

4. Think about whether there are patterns in the interruptions that you get most frequently, and whether there are ways to head them off. For example, if people are regularly interrupting you for guidance on X, you might be able to create a tip sheet or decision tree about X that will help people solve those questions themselves.

5. Recognize that there are some jobs where interruptions are the job. While there are many jobs where the assumption is that you’ll get large uninterrupted blocks of time to focus, there are others where the role is actually structured around needing to be accessible to others most of the time. In those roles, it’s not realistic to protect your time at the expense of making it difficult for people to get in touch with you quickly. If you’re in a job like that, the answer is usually to account for that in your work planning and goal-setting, and to make sure that people above you recognize that reality.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Meg Murry*

    I’m so grateful to work in an office with a door now, it makes all the difference! When I want to focus but it isn’t a time crunch or a true “do not disturb” situation, I use the signal of “door closed all but a crack” – that keeps people from popping in but doesn’t stop them from knocking if they truly need me that minute.

    In a past office with cubes we used to pass around a spare chair with a “do not disturb” sign on it to put in the cube entrance. It still didn’t help with visual or noise distractions, but it at least kept out the casual chat-ers.

    I absolutely have to use the all of the techniques Alison mentioned for my most dreaded tasks – block calendar, turn off email and phone ringer and shut my office door, because I am my own worst enemy and I am terrible about letting myself get distracted by “helping” others or spending time on low priority but less hated tasks.

    1. Punkin*

      I have been begging for a door for 3 years. People walk straight into my cube with no regard to my conference calls or others with whom I may be meeting. Plus the microwave and fridge are outside my cube.

      Last week, I finally put a yellow strip of CAUTION tape across my entrance with a “Punkin’s Door is CLOSED” clipped on it. When I am not busy, I pull the pushpin and the tape & sign drop behind my cube wall.

      It worked miracles! People even stopped talking outside my cube.

      1. OfficePrincess*

        I am so tempted to do that. I do have one of those jobs where interruptions are half the reason I’m here, but I’m forever trying to get people to triage their interruptions. Not everything needs to be handled by me and me alone at this exact moment!

      2. Nobody*

        I’m glad that worked for you, but I think anyone who does that should consider really carefully whether it’s appropriate to the office culture. If it’s not, it could make you look high-maintenance. In my department, there is one guy who regularly puts a sign across his cubicle entrance, and people make fun of him for it. In another department, everyone does it and nobody has a problem with it because it’s business as usual for them. I wouldn’t want to be the first/only one to do it.

        1. Punkin*

          I understand. I considered it carefully. My direct boss saw me put the sign up. It is up only when I am needing uninterrupted concentration (database upgrades, conference calls, meetings with users). My big boss chuckled when he saw it & apologized for facilities not being able to find a door (we have OLD cubicles). It’s either the sign or the work does not get done.

          We are IT, in a small hallway of 4 cubicles and my boss’s office at the end of the hallway. My cube door is in line with the entrance to our area. We do not see any public customers – just internal functional users.

          When projects start to lag because people interrupt my work continually, I will take the office culture hit – but we are IT, so kinda casual. My big boss (VP of IT) has been promising me a door for 3 years. This is the only way that works so far. Of course, I would never have it up with outsiders visiting.

          1. Nobody*

            I didn’t mean to imply there was anything wrong with you doing it; you seem to have had success with this, so I figured it must be accepted practice in your office. I just wanted to point out that not every office will consider this reasonable, and if you’re working somewhere that this just isn’t done, you run the risk of making a bad impression by doing it.

            1. Punkin*

              Gotcha. Did not mean to come off as defensive. Of course, the rule is to know your office culture.

              Once I worked at HugeWorldwidePaperProductsCompany – this definitely would not work there.

              Now I work for the state in higher ed. They have great benefits, but pay is low. Not many people knocking down the door to work for us.

              The best part is that I have not had to put the sign up much this week. It seems to have made people more considerate. Go figure. Maybe they just did not realize how their visits were impacting my work.

  2. Newbie*

    All great advice. In a previous job, I spent a considerable amount of time in meetings, needed to be accessible to my direct reports for assistance and questions, and had projects of my own to complete. And I had colleagues that would respond snarkily if I declined a meeting request when my calendar showed me as available – they didn’t want to accept that I might actually have other tasks to accomplish. So I started blocking time on my calendar for work sessions, particularly when deadlines were looming, so those colleagues wouldn’t know . I let my direct reports know that during those scheduled work sessions they were able to interrupt with questions provided my office door was open; if the door was closed (which was less than 10% of the time) it meant I needed to focus and meet a deadline.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      OMFG calendars. They are a blessing and a curse — a blessing because they enable people, in theory, to consider others’ schedules when setting up a meeting, and a curse because, as you say, people view “unblocked” as “available for memememememe!”

      Pet peeve: people who schedule meetings *when they can see my calendar is blocked*, and then get mad when I decline. This kind of shiz is exactly why I sometimes deploy the hiding tactic described below — because people don’t respect when time is blocked off for a bona fide meeting, let alone a work block.

      1. Mike C.*

        I’m suffering through the EXACT SAME THING. Then they schedule a ton of meetings on an emergent basis so my workday is broken up and it’s screwing up the prioritization of my work because the meeting holders expect that their items will be ready and presented when I need to work on other things. Then of course every meeting is far enough away that it’s a 15 minute walk to.

        And yes, we had an all-company speech from a president telling us to have fewer meetings, why do you ask? >.<

      2. LQ*

        One of the top things I’m enthusiastic about showing people is how to check to see when I’m free. My calendar is always up to date, just put something on the schedule. People are agog. The culture around it isn’t really improving, but I’m making a one woman campaign to get people to use their calenders rather than just sending 30 different emails back and forth among a group to find the right time.

        I’m happy to block off work time to not have to deal with that back and forth. (I do often block off a full morning or a full afternoon to deal with something. And leave my cube, lest people get the wrong idea, even if it means using a subpar computing set up.)

        1. Hiding on the Internet Today*

          This! If the calendar is open, I can meet with you. Otherwise, no. Done.

          I do block out commuting time, a sliver of time for lunch and work blocks. If there is a serious emergency, it means I can squeeze something in by coming in early, meeting at lunch or meeting in a 2x/week work block, but for general “Lets talk about X”? My calendar is my life. I go where it tells me.

  3. AdAgencyChick*

    If you have a laptop, and you work in an open office environment (CURSE THE OPEN OFFICE! CURSES!!!), it can also help to work in another part of the office when you truly need interruption-free time. If someone simply can’t find you at your desk or with a phone call, they’ll probably send an email or leave a voicemail rather than send out the troops looking for you.

    I’ve never had success with just telling people I am working on something and can I please get back to them at X time. They just keep talking and asking their questions because they’re there and it’s no skin off *their* nose to get the answer they want right then and there.

    The “hide in another spot” tactic does have to be used sparingly so as not to get you branded unresponsive and unwilling to collaborate. But sometimes it’s the only thing that works, at least for me.

    1. ZenJen*

      FYI, they keep talking to you because you are giving them attention and reinforcing that their interruption is cool with you. If I have an instant messaging status on, a note on my door, and someone is STILL trying to contact me (and I know it’s not a crisis), then I know I am fine to IGNORE that person until I’m available again. It works when you stick to following YOUR OWN status messages!

      1. FiveWheels*

        Alas sometimes it’s almost impossible to refuse attention. I think of an incident in which a coworker wanted information from me. I told him I was in the middle of something but would get bask to him asap. Several times.

        When he put his files on top of my files and papers on top of my papers and phone, I decided that I would have to die on that hill some other day.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          So true. Turn back toward your computer, they keep talking to you. Tell them you’ll get back to them later, they keep talking to you. “I really need to get this done now.” “Yeah, I know, but just tell me this one thing and I’ll leave you alone!”

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Yeah, my BF’s work has something called breakout rooms for exactly this purpose (and also for guests visiting from other offices). I’m so jealous.

    3. MaryMary*

      Even in a non-open office environment, “going into hiding” can be invaluable. It is a know you office and know your manager situation, but one of my former managers suggested it to me. We had our own offices, but we’d still get interrupted constantly. He said he’d gone to a Panera before for an afternoon, and my predecessor had hidden out at the local public library. Like AdAgencyChick says, it’s something to use sparingly, but it’s amazing how well out of sight, out of mind can work.

      1. Honeybee*

        Yeah, we can work from home on my team occasionally and lots of people will send around a message that they’re working from home because they have a lot of stuff to get done and they know they can work uninterrupted there. We’re in an open floor plan right now.

  4. Elizabeth West*

    Point #5–yes, the receptionist or a customer service representative will be interrupted frequently. It’s frustrating when your boss is also giving you other work to do, but you have to adjust to it. This is why I make my weekly front desk coverage a time when I don’t work on anything. It’s only an hour, I would rather not redo something, and technically I AM working–I’m doing a coworker’s job so she can go eat.

  5. Kelly L.*

    I’m currently dealing with a situation where my pre-existing Interruptions-Are-the-Job job has been combined with a retired co-worker’s Need Blocks of Time To Focus job, and it’s been…interesting, to say the least.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Been there, done that. My workplace at the time didn’t see any problem with sticking me at the front desk to cover for the receptionist, but expecting me to, at the exact same time, deal with clients who wanted me to come look at a problem on their computer, clear the jam in the copier or printer, and so on.

      Or expecting me to handle some IT stuff, so I’d have computer guts all over the place, but I’d still have to jump up and go make coffee immediately if someone complained they were out…

      Or giving me project stuff but wanting me to be available to clients at all times.

      I was kind of relieved when I got fired.

    2. BeenThere*

      I feel for you Kelly L. usually the two roles do not work well and Need Blocks of Time to Focus deadlines suffer.

      When my former employer tried to combine my Need Blocks of Time to Focus job which I love with the Interruptions Are the Job job of my other team mate who was downsized from. I told them no. I made it clear when I joined I was not doing that work under any circumstances and they still tried to pull that on me. This escalated to the person below the CIO shirt fronting me on their first visit to our office trying to bully me into doing it. Little did they know I have learnt that the best revenge is to live well :) I focused all my anger on getting the best job ever and resigned in style. When my manager asked if there was anything they could do instead of berating him I simply told him the name of the company I was moving to and for the first time ever he shut up. An impressive feat for someone who dragged 5 minute meeting out into 45 minute monologues.

      I’m on job number four in a four and a half year span, one month number two, wish me luck hopefully this one remains as advertised!

  6. ZenJen*

    I do the closed door, the calendar time blocks, and what works best (for some) is the days I work from HOME—if I’m not physically in the office, I’m dead to them! I can deal with that when I’m busy with something. :-)

    we also have an instant messaging system at my co., and can customize our status messages–sometimes I’ll say unavailable until 2pm ET, or something like that. If someone STILL tries to interrupt me with something that I KNOW can wait until I’m available, I just ignore them–I know I have my status on and it’s their problem if they think they’re too special to wait.

  7. Bend & Snap*

    I’m in crunch time and getting really irritated with people who are raising things not related to my focus right now.

    I’m going to take some of these tips to heart.

    I’ve also been booking conference rooms to minimize in-person interruptions.

  8. Matt F*

    My time-honored method of being left alone to finish something is to schedule a conference call with one attendee (me). Not only does it block out the calendar time, but no one bothers me with the phone headset on.

  9. Artemesia*

    When I had a serious deadline, I worked from home — blocking those days out ahead of time as to be devoted to the proposal, report or whatever that had a deadline. My son works in a giant open space office on highly technical work and works from home a couple days a week to get that uninterrupted focus time.

  10. Sharon*

    This is timely. I’ve noticed that in my last few jobs, everybody is so overworked that even though we need to collaborate on things, we can barely find two minutes to spare each other. Everyone is assigned to work on 5 – 8 projects simultaneously. It’s ironic that companies implement open offices with the idea that it will facilitate collaboration but do they give us a little slack time with which to collaborate? Heck no! There’s a HUGE blind spot there.

  11. Cautionary tail*

    Nice list but I take umbridge at the close door suggestion even though it’s framed as a cultural choice. It’s been discussed in these forums before that people can be accused of doing inappropriate things behind closed doors which can lead to bad outcomes. Every door in this Fortune 500 company either has a window in it or there is a window next to the door and people have still gotten into trouble for doing things with the door closed. I leave the door open no matter what room I’m in and no matter what I am doing.

    1. Jaydee*

      Door signs can help, especially if for some reason you can’t be 100% “closed door” (either literally or figuratively. A simple sign that says “Please do not disturb. I’ll be available at ___:___.” can work wonders. If someone does interrupt you can say “Sorry, I’m right in the middle of something. Can we talk about this after [time on sign]?” with a subtle gesture toward the sign. Just make sure that you really do become available at the time you specify.

  12. KR*

    My boss was joking the other day that he was going to tell everyone that he had pinkeye just so that they would leave him alone and let him work on a project. He doesn’t have it, of course, but it was funny.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Oh that’s brilliant. You could even line his eyes with pink eyeshadow and make some eye goop with Vaseline.

  13. Lily in NYC*

    Headphones work once in a while (I do think some people are less likely to approach a coworker wearing them). But with our bullpen floor-plan, it’s impossible not to get constant interruptions. I truly think people have fewer boundaries because of the lack of walls (we no longer have cubicles, it’s more like a newsroom style). The woman next to me gets hounded by junior staffers who want work advice from her (not about projects, more like career advice). She has started booking conference rooms so she can shut a door and get away from people – but that’s not a good workaround because we have so few conference rooms that people fight over them.

    Someone just came up as I was typing this and asked me for birthday candles and a lighter. I gave him a weird look and said I didn’t have either and he asked me to try to find some (I might have laughed in his face). He is junior to me and works in a different dept. and this is the crap I deal with all day.

    1. T3k*

      Wow, that sucks. And really, birthday candles and a lighter?! Sounds like someone straight out of college (in the dorms, it was common to have random students you never talked to on your floor to ask for something random).

      1. Lily in NYC*

        That is part of the problem – my title is executive assistant but I don’t really do any admin work. But the birthday candle dude has no idea what my title is. I guess some of the fault lies with me because I am friendly and people feel comfortable approaching me.

  14. Felix*

    Shared offices are the worst for productivity! We also have a storage closet in ours which means other staff want to stay and chat when they come to get something. I really like everyone, but if you are the third person in a row to interrupt me due to the closet, I’m gonna seem abrupt!

    Why aren’t offices designed for actual employees to be able to work?!!!!

  15. AnonEMoose*

    Most of the time, brief interruptions to answer a question and/or chat a bit are fine, and part of the job. I do have periods of “crunch time” about 4 times a year, when I am literally working flat out just to try to keep up and meet deadlines. It has to do with how my work is structured, and isn’t something I can avoid.

    I’ve had decent success asking my boss to request that coworkers email me their questions rather than stopping by my desk during those times. They know I’ll get back to them by end of day, faster if I get a moment. Some still do forget and try to stop by, and I’ll say something like “Sorry, now’s not good – email me, please?” or “really, really can’t right now – email me?” Coupled with a frazzled look and an apologetic tone, it works fairly well.

    My boss is also fine with me taking a work from home day if I have tasks that mean I must focus. My coworkers can still call me (but mostly don’t) or email me so I can answer them when I’m between other tasks. Or I can set my phone so it goes right to voice mail and check messages later. My boss is ok with it because he also experiences the crunch times, and he knows I’ll get back to people the same day or early the next if the message comes in late.

  16. Graciosa*

    What I need to do more of is setting my IM to Do Not Disturb.

    It clearly displays my status as on a conference call, but I still get people sending me an IM to ask if I can IM. If I answer “Briefly – I’m on a call” this is taken as leave to have an anything *but* brief discussion. If I answer one simple first question, I get a follow up, and then another, and so on.

    This happened to me today even though my response after the first was various iterations of, “I’ll have to talk to you about that later, when I’m off this call.”

    IM seems to be a license to interrupt. I’m ready to shut if off.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Ours has that setting too. I’ve asked someone a question when they’re at Busy, but only if it’s really important and I need a timely answer. Usually I will just email, because it’s easier for them to ignore that and check it when they have time.

      You get used to people’s different settings–for example, I’m usually always Available, so when I’m at Busy, people know I’m actually busy. I’ve only done DND a couple of times. My boss is almost always In a Meeting, so I just email her.

    2. LQ*

      Our IM program (skype for business? formerly known as lync, formerly known as something else…) doesn’t allow messages to come through when DND is on. (This bugs me when someone who is on DND sends me a message and I respond and then get the *soandso is DND your message didn’t go through* and I have to copy that into an email to them, but mostly it’s awesome.)

  17. AnotherFed*

    I love the photo for this article. I have absolutely been the person trying to hide behind the laptop screen in hopes that people will let me get work done!

  18. Student*

    Any advice about how to redirect people to the right resources?

    I’ve got three student-employees coming to me (staff) regularly for guidance. I am not their adviser/mentor/boss, but I am substantially more accessible than the people who fill those roles and also knowledgeable about the work. Picture your boss being in a different building that you don’t have access to – that’s about what the students have in relation to their mentors. The students need training. I’m not the person who is supposed to provide it, and I simply don’t have time to provide it (especially to all three). They keep coming to me with questions.

    I have a cube, so I can’t shut the door (they are all right over the cube walls from me). I’ve asked their advisers to be more involved with them, to no avail – as time goes by, the students come to me more and more. I’ve tried putting them off, asking them to talk to their mentor (often simply not here or not responding, not sure what to do about that). Sometimes there are safety violations involved (lab work) and I feel that I cannot responsibly ignore these violations, but teaching the student how to follow the rules is another time-eater.

    1. LQ*

      “I’m really busy, have you checked the manual/internal website/other resource? I’ll come over in 10 minutes when I’ve got a quick break in this.” Even just a few minutes can make a lot of sense for this redirecting thing. (This assumes there are resources out there.)

  19. Noah*

    Part of my job falls in #5. I don’t really have the choice but to answer. Part of why I enjoy my job though. I do have a scheduled work from home day every Wednesday so I can focus on certain items though. Our office is open plan but generally people are respectful and we make a big use of Outlook/Exchange calendars. The office culture is that everything should go on your calendar.

    Speaking out Outlook. A colleague was amazed recently when I showed her the scheduling assistant in Outlook. I guess before she was just going to everyone’s calendars and trying to find a time that worked without being able to see them all on one page. She was even more amazed when I showed her the Room Finder option. I used to question why tasks take certain people forever, but I’m starting to learn why.

    1. Honeybee*

      We actually had a little mini-class on Outlook when I first started working here to teach us all of those little tips. Outlook is so massive that I think it’s difficult and takes a while for people to learn to use it efficiently.

  20. Honeybee*

    Man, I learned that first one quickly here. We are slaves to the calendar and people here even block off travel time to and from work so that people won’t Skype interrupt them while they’re on our shuttles or expect them to respond to emails within 10 minutes.

    Next month or so we are moving from an open floor plan to offices (with glass doors and windows). I think it’s a testament to how much we all like each other that people actually groaned about this – most of us prefer the open floor plan. But we work together a lot and interruptions, redirecting the work flow and putting out fires are definitely part of the job. It’s a good mix of respectful of each other’s time (people will stop by and ask if you have time to chat before they barrel into it) and still open.

    Plus you get to hear all the crazy shenanigans that happen…I work in the video game industry, so there’s often someone playing a game and reacting to it out loud in real time. Not as distracting as you might think (it happens so often you get used to it) and hilarious if you are just checking email.

  21. anncakes*

    Number 1 pet peeve when it comes to interruptions: people who talk to me while I’m filling medications. This may not be the best way to handle it, but I can’t help but try to ignore them and then say, “Dammit, I lost count!” when I inevitably lost count because they’re asking me some question even though they can plainly see I’m counting. This is one of those cases where I read the comments here and kind of wish I had an ordinary office job where we could argue about a calendar instead.

  22. Matt*

    My pet peeve is the strong phone culture at my place. Everyone calls everyone about everything, and the culture is to answer all calls. There is no voicemail, and ignoring the phone while being at your desk is strongly frowned upon. Since the introduction of caller ID in our system, it also gets more and more usual and expected that you return all missed calls.

    It’s worst during “crunch times” – two days ago a project manager complained that “he wishes that internal availability via phone is ensured”, clearly meaning me because I hadn’t returned two calls from him … but it’s JUST during crunch times that I cannot and will not respond to every call immediately because, you guess what, I have *work* to do … sometimes I really have to resist the temptation to cut the wire and throw the thing out of the window ;-)

  23. Hannah*

    My best tip is to work off hours so you get some hours to really work where no one is bothering you! I go in early. Some people like to stay later instead for the same reason. Sadly more and more people in my office are starting to come in early, so my 2 hours alone has become more like 1 hour, but still, doing this has been a great routine for me.

  24. That Marketing Chick*

    I recently was in crunch time for a major project, and asked that everyone please not disturb me unless it was urgent (OK, maybe it came across a little harsher than that, but with a hard-stop deadline for a major project, I had NO wiggle room), and actually had a colleague come and interrupt me to see how I was doing under the pressure – “are you doing OK under this looming deadline”. Um….you’ve just interrupted me and broken my concentration and now I’m further behind; so… NO.” I actually took that opportunity to talk to him about boundaries. Sigh.

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